Content warning: This article contains references to depression, suicide, and eating disorders which may be triggering for some readers.
The teenage experience is a unique one. Proven by scientific research on biological changes, hormones are unbalanced during the adolescent stage and such changes can lead to overwhelming emotions which, when coupled with general mental health struggles, can be debilitating. For many adolescents, this experience is alienating, in a way that exacerbates the common feeling of being misunderstood among teenagers. Every experience feels incredibly unique and personal, and oh-so-important and life-changing. When an individual is struggling with mental health issues, the unique experience of being a teenager does not help to alleviate any pain.
In theory, media representation of mental health, specifically the mental health of young people, should be a positive factor in this population’s health. Yet, this notion would require for the media to be made with consideration of negative consequences, despite monetary gain — an unlikely statement. The reality is that mental health is consistently glamorized in the media, specifically in film, television, and apps marketed towards a teenage audience.
Depictions of mental health are harmful by glossing over the harsh truths, the struggle, and the harrowing consequences. Teen-related television shows and movies, in particular, often portray mental health as something fragile, vulnerable, and therefore, in a strange way, beautiful.
The Virgin Suicides (1999) is the epitome of the internet’s understanding of mental health. While the story in itself can be understood to be an examination of how external pressures and opinions forced these girls to depression and ultimately, cost them their lives, the artistic nature of this film causes this message to become lost in the romanticized aesthetic of depression. Instead, most people know the film for its romanticism of the pain of being a teenage girl. The girl, crying in her bedroom after being used, and the crushing experience of being misunderstood are presented as the norm of girlhood, instead of the symptoms of depression that they actually were. As people repost Kristen Dunst in her camera-perfect gaze and flawless skin, sulking in a field, it feels as though the trauma these girls go through has been glanced over.
Rissa Coronel writes about how the media seems to suggest you can cure mental illness through romance, as shown in Silver Linings Playbook (2012) and It’s Kind of a Funny Story (2010). These films show the mental health struggles as something these characters can bond over. While a degree of truth lies in this depiction, in both of these pieces, the characters’ struggles mysteriously go away once love is achieved. Mental illness is often portrayed not as an illness, but instead as a trait that can easily be cured. This sort of damaged, “we can fix one another” trope is frequently praised by young audiences, not just in what media they absorb, but what they republish, repost, and put as their wallpapers.
To quote Anne-Sophie Bine’s examination on how social media redefined depression, “This online cultivation of beautiful sadness is easy to join: anyone can take a picture, turn it black and white, pair it with a quote about misunderstood turmoil, and automatically be gratified with compassion and pity.” Bine notes that Tumblr, the artistic blog most popular during the early 2010s, was particularly notorious for creating an environment that fuelled the glorification of mental illness. Tags allowed users to filter searches specifically for eating disorders, depression, and a multitude of other illnesses. The blog itself was popular for cultivating young talent and being a space for artists to publish photography and writing. When the site’s affinity for artistic behaviour is convoluted to turn mental illness into a trending topic, one can only expect a teenage brain to see this content and have it feed into their mental health struggles.
The cycle is then constantly perpetuated. Those on particularly enabling social media sites and apps continue to absorb and create art, posts, or poetry that associate their mental health illness with pain, beauty, and once again, some sort of strange romance.
Kelsi Karpinsiki wrote a piece on the tortured artist myth – think Black Swan (2010), Slyvia Plath, and Whiplash (2014). The tortured artist myth sends the message that if your art is painful, it is also beautiful and tragic. Once again, we can see how the praise of these movies, specifically amongst a young audience, can make a dedication to a hobby unhealthy. The tortured artist is made to be beautiful, respected, and in many ways, unreachable. They are known to push families away, amass great infamy, and most importantly, they are deeply misunderstood. For a teenager, already struggling with mental health issues, absorbing this sort of narrative can cause one to believe that to suffer for art is not only worth it, but precious and beautiful in itself.
The bottom line is this; mental illness is not beautiful. While this seems like an obvious statement, the serious realities of mental health struggles are disregarded in exchange for the financial gain and success of the people behind these pieces. When 13 Reasons Why (2017) came out, parents and specialists alike were concerned about the graphic content. While it became widely known that many mental health specialists did not recommend including the on-screen suicide attempt, Netflix kept the scene in. Studies now show that 13 Reasons Why inspired copycat suicides, and various studies found that the suicide rate among 10 to 17-year-olds increased up to 29%. The scene has since been removed, but the situation highlights how careless creators of media can be.
When making content marketed towards the young adolescent, should there not be a consideration with what would help with mental health struggles instead of just simply showing it on screen? Why should the story of teen girls and depression be so aesthetically pleasing? Should websites allow for graphic photos of “thinspo” and other harmful eating disorder content to be blatantly posted under the guise of “art”?
Between 2008 and 2010, 12% of teenage girls from the ages of 12 to 17 suffered from major depressive episodes, a statistic 3 times higher than teenage boys in the same range. Regardless of these disparities, mental health struggles, in general, are particularly difficult for the young brain that already has to endure the coming of age experience and is unable to distinguish what is a positive and negative depiction of mental health. Who is looking out for the internet users and the movie watchers who see themselves reflected in the sad, helpless teen and instead of seeing some of the harsh truths of mental illness, the dangers, the weight loss, the sleepless nights, they see attractive actors and a melancholic soundtrack?
Who is making sure that mental health is being expressed as something real, not just something that is pretty enough to win a golden globe? The answer seems to be no one. Instead, creators in the entertainment industry should be held accountable for the capital they gain while tricking teenagers that pain is beautiful, instead of it being a phenomenon that requires genuine help.
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Vice